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With the exception of that team from the Bronx and, perhaps, the Red Sox, no baseball franchise in history is as storied as the Dodgers — especially the incarnation that played at old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn until the club’s abrupt (and, for countless Brooklynites, unforgivable) move to L.A. in 1958.
Those Brooklyn teams from the 1940s and ’50s — filled with players bearing names like Reese, Campanella, Snider, Robinson, Newcombe, Hodges, Stanky, Reiser, Furillo, Branca and so many more — hold a special place not only in the memories of millions of fans of a certain age, but in the annals of the game itself. Dem Bums, after all, won eight pennants and one World Series during those two decades, and probably would have won a few more championships if they didn’t have to keep facing (and losing to) the powerhouse Yankee teams of the era.
Here, however, LIFE.com offers a series of photos — many of which never ran in LIFE — not of well-known, Hall of Fame-worthy Dodgers but, for the most part, long-forgotten young hopefuls at spring training in 1948, the very first year the team trained at the “Dodgertown” complex in Vero Beach, Florida. (The Los Angeles Dodgers left Dodgertown in 2008 to hold their spring training in Arizona — ending 60 years of tradition.)
The photos here, by LIFE’s George Silk, are marvelous for a number of reasons, not least because, quite simply, they’re just damn good pictures. There is energy in the images, and a genuine playfulness as well as terrific personalities — captured by an acknowledged master of sports photography. But the real pleasure to be derived from these shots is the glimpse they afford us of baseball in the post-WWII era in America. To be sure, the players and coaches pictured here are all very, very white. Jackie Robinson had only broken the color barrier the previous year, and in 1948 there were only three (that’s not a typo) black players in the National and American leagues.
But the rather jarring racial uniformity aside, the photos in the gallery serve as a welcome reminder of the game’s inimitable appeal for fans who might have forgotten why they first fell in love with baseball in the first place: the sound of bat against ball, and ball against glove; the mingled smells of wood, dirt, grass and leather; warm sunshine, and the cool of the dugout; the thrill of competition and the beauty of teamwork; the pure geometry of the diamond — all of these pleasures are, to varying degrees, illustrated or suggested in Silk’s spirited pictures.
The cover story in which a few of these photos first appeared, meanwhile, in the April 5, 1948, issue of LIFE, made it plain that while professional baseball is certainly a game, it’s also undeniably a business — and it’s often nearly impossible to tease the two apart, and to tell where one aspect of the national pastime stops and the other starts:
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.